The Jazz Singer

The first "talkie" told the story of a Jewish man seeking his future on Broadway.

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A strong central love story has been the uni­fying force in movie musicals for genera­tions. The Jazz Singer didn't settle for just one. It actually had four of them--almost as if Warner Brothers was trying to break the rules of the movie musical game before the game even started. The Jazz Singer was a love story to a young man's mother, sweet­heart, chosen profession, and religion.

The story, of course, didn't originate with the studio; it was based on a play by Samson Raphaelson, which in turn was based on his own short story, "The Day of Atonement." George Jessel starred in the Broadway ver­sion, but it was Al Jolson who ultimately won the role in Warner's movie, starring as Jakie Rabinowitz, a young singer and cantor's son who changes his name to Jack Robin when the footlights start to call out to him.

Not only does Jack love his Jewish heritage, he also loves show business (which in his father's eyes is an evil interloper), his devoted mother (who is troubled by the division in their fam­ily), and a pretty girl named Mary Dale (who is not Jewish). Maybe that's what Jolson meant when he said, "You ain't seen noth­ing yet."

Spotlight on a Jewish Family

The movie, adapted by Jack Jarmuth and directed by Alan Crosland, introduced to wider audiences than ever before such Jolson classics as "Mammy," "Blue Skies," "My Gal Sal," and "Waiting for the Robert E. Lee" through the new Vitaphone sound-on-disc process that Warner Brothers had purchased from Western Electric. In addition, The Jazz Singer is noted for introducing one of the earliest quintessential Jewish mothers on screen, played by Eugenie Besserer, a lead­ing character actress of the day who had ap­peared in more than 30 films by the time she played Mama Rabinowitz.

Mama knows how much her Jakie loves her, but little by little she and Papa Rab­inowitz (Warner Oland) discover that there are many other influences in their boy's life, a fact that sits about as well with both of them as a large stuffed cabbage. Maybe our boy doesn't want to be a can­tor, Papa," Mama laments.

"Whathas he got to say?" Papa rebuffs. "For five generations a Rabinowitz has been a cantor. He must be one."

Still, Jakie hits the road, as Jewish boys do from time to time, and almost at once finds enthusiastic audiences for his special brand of music. Meanwhile, Mary, the young ingenue (May McAvoy), hangs on fast to her rising star with the boyish grin (even in blackface) and man-size ego. It isn't long before Jakie feels the need to write to his beloved mother about all that's happen­ing to him on the road.

"Read me what he says about the girl," a family friend says to Mama after she receives a letter from Jakie.

"Maybe he's fallen in love with a shikse,," she realizes, painfully re­reading the words on the page, using that [derogatory and] sometimes wicked-sounding Yiddish word for a non-­Jewish woman.

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Joel Samberg, a humor and opinion columnist, also is the author of The Jewish Book of Lists.